King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

National League preview: If the Phillies don't kill their manager, they'll finally unseat the Braves, but watch out for the Astros at playoff time.

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After my American League preview on Wednesday, reader Joseph Alexis wrote, “Are your baseball predictions serious, or are these just to be thought-provoking?” I wrote back that I see no reason why something can’t be both serious and thought-provoking, by which I think I mistakenly implied that my work is both when in fact it’s neither.

These predictions are meant to be entertaining reading, and while I’m dead serious about them, I don’t see any reason why you should take then seriously any more than you should take anyone else’s predictions seriously, except your doctor’s if you don’t cut out all those fried foods.

And if any readers of this column find themselves provoked into thought, I refuse to accept the blame.

Onward to the fearless and almost certainly wrong National League predictions. Last year I pegged just one division winner, the Cubs — come on, that was kind of a gutsy pick last spring — and got the Braves into the playoffs as a wild card team, not a division champ. It was a dismal performance I’m sure I can repeat this year.

WESTERN DIVISION

What if they had a division and no one won it? Of course somebody has to win, but what if they had a division and no one finished above .500? It probably would have happened in the four-team A.L. West in 1994, but thanks to the strike we’ll never know. It won’t happen in the N.L. West this year, but it might be nip and tuck come September. There’s good reason to look at every team except the Rockies and go, “Eh, .500 wouldn’t be a bad guess.” For the Rockies, .500 is an admirably optimistic goal.

The N.L. West is where I keep saying the Diamondbacks are too old and due for a collapse and the Diamondbacks keep winning 90-plus games. Last year I gave in, picked them to win the division, which I said would be weak, and they won 84 and finished a distant third behind a 100-win Giants team that went wire to wire. I don’t do my best work in picking this division. I’ll just leave the question of where I do do my best work hanging there like a Coors Field curveball.



I’m taking a flyer on the Padres, who have been building toward this moment for several years. The idea has been to strip down, save money by losing cheaply, and then be ready to strike with a winner when the new stadium opens in ’04. They certainly got the first part right. They’re not going to win 100 games to inaugurate Petco Park, but I think they’ve got a shot to be this year’s Royals, improving by 20-plus games.

That would put them in the mid- to high 80s, which should be enough. A lot has to go right. The big sticks — Brian Giles, Phil Nevin, Ryan Klesko, Sean Burroughs, Jay Payton — have to stay healthy and produce, and it wouldn’t hurt if David Wells does the same. Jake Peavy and Adam Eaton are promising young starters, and Trevor Hoffman is back from surgery. It’s not like another 98-loss season would be shocking, but I’ll take my chances.

As for the rest of the division, I’m not convinced the Dodgers have added enough offense to rejoin the living, and they’ve lost Kevin Brown from last year’s stellar pitching staff. The Giants are thin and hurting on the mound, and just ridiculously reliant offensively on Barry Bonds, who may be from some other planet but will after all be 40 years old in July. The Diamondbacks have for years been ridiculously reliant on Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson — “Johnson and Schilling, then take a drilling” — and now Schilling is in Boston and Johnson is already 40, and with a bum knee. The Rockies have gone back to their old strategy of trying to win with offense. They don’t have to improve much from last year’s 74-88 to get into the race, but I’m not holding my breath.

Predicted finish: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado

CENTRAL DIVISION

Last year the Cubs were my flyer — as with my Padres fling this year, I was hardly alone on this — and it worked out nicely. This year everybody’s taking them to repeat, and everybody who’s not taking them to repeat is picking the Astros, so I’m going to go with the Cardinals.

St. Louis has a formidable lineup — four position players were All-Stars last year, all legit — and similar pitching questions as a year ago. They’ll need Matt Morris and 37-year-old Woody Williams to stay healthy at the front of the rotation and all those fourth-starter, Jeff Suppan types at the back to come through. I think that’s a better bet than putting my money on the Cubs to repeat. The Cubs haven’t repeated at anything, or at least anything good, since they won back-to-back championships in 1907 and ’08.

Those teams got a combined 38 wins from Orval Overall, who isn’t relevant to this discussion but I like to mention him every few years. Anyway, it’s always risky to expect Dusty Baker’s teams to underachieve, but I’m guessing that even with that strong starting rotation, the Cubs will live up to the baseball adage that a team that improves suddenly one year backslides a bit the next. And remember, even though the Cubs almost went to the World Series, they won only 88 games last year.

The Astros added Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to a rotation that already included Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt, and it’s hard to look at that and not just hand them at least the wild card. But this is an old bunch. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent are all on the shady side of 35 and declining, though the Minute Maid launching pad masks some of that. Clemens is coming off a good year but not a great one, and he’s another year older — he’ll be 42 before the pennant race heats up. But add Lance Berkman, Richard Hidalgo and Morgan Ensberg to the old hitters and throw in Octavio Dotel coming out of the bullpen, and this team should be good enough to win a tough wild card race over, as usual, most of the National League.

It seems as though I should mention the other three teams in the division, so: Pirates, Brewers, Reds. Ken Griffey Jr. is hurt again. I have a script that produces the previous sentence whenever I type the letters R-e-d-s.

Predicted finish: St. Louis, Houston (wild card), Chicago, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cincinnati

EASTERN DIVISION

Like almost everybody else who does this sort of thing, I got burned last year when I predicted that the Braves’ run of division titles, dating to 1991, would end. I predicted the same thing in 2002, and I’m afraid to look at 2001. Well, I’m doing it again this year: The Phillies to win the division title that I and plenty of others had penciled them in for in ’03.

The Phillies looked like the best team in the National League a year ago, and they flopped, hanging around the wild card race until the Marlins dusted ‘em in September. Their big problems seemed to be that slugger Pat Burrell tanked and nobody can stand manager Larry Bowa, whose teams have had a way of dying down the stretch.

In 2001, Bowa’s first year as manager in Philadelphia, the Phillies went to bed on Aug. 28 tied for first with the Braves. The rest of the way they went 15-16 and finished two games behind Atlanta, which hadn’t exactly run away with the division. Last year, the Phillies went to bed on Aug. 17 a half game ahead of the Marlins in the wild card race. The rest of the way they went 17-22, finishing five games behind Florida, which went a solid but not spectacular 22-16. Could it be that by late August, Bowa’s players are so sick of listening to him yell that they switch off? I’m suspicious of such ideas, but I’ll believe it if it happens again.

The Phillies have a solid rotation, an OK bullpen led by newcomer Billy Wagner, and a powerful lineup, assuming Burrell bounces back. It should be enough, and having big crowds filling their new ballpark won’t hurt. The Braves have lost an awful lot. They shouldn’t have expected a repeat of 2003 from Javy Lopez even if they’d kept him, and they certainly won’t get it now that he’s in Baltimore. Gary Sheffield is off to the Bronx. That’s 82 home runs gone north right there. The once legendary rotation is now led by pretty good but not great Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz. John Smoltz is still there. You can’t write the Braves off. They’ll still be pretty good. There’s always the wild card, and they’ll be waiting close by if the Phillies go south again in September. But the run of division titles — I mean it this time! — is in danger.

The Marlins, who let’s not forget are the defending World Series champions, also shouldn’t be far off if the Phillies leave the division open. The 2003 Marlins were the 2002 Angels: Pretty much everything went right for them. That doesn’t happen two years in a row, even when you don’t lose the guy who almost single-handedly carried you through the postseason, as the departed Ivan Rodriguez did. And before you start in on how the Marlins can’t lose with septuagenarian genius Jack McKeon at the helm, keep in mind that last year was the 10th time he’d finished a season as the skipper of a big league team, and the first time he’d managed in the playoffs.

The Expos, owned by your friends the other 29 teams, having been stripped of Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez and facing another punishing schedule including 22 “home” games in Puerto Rico, will return to the cellar. At one point the Expos will go 30 days, including the All-Star break, between games in Montreal. And consider this two-week itinerary in May: Milwaukee, Phoenix, San Juan, Montreal.

The Mets will begin to rebound from the disaster that was caused by the Steve Phillips regime and the fact of my picking them to win the East in 2002.

Predicted finish: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Florida, New York, Montreal

Predicted National League champion: Houston Astros. Hard to pick a champion because everyone seems to have such potential flaws, but my reasoning in taking the wild card team is that that sort of thing is all the rage — three of the last four World Series teams were wild cards — and if the Astros do make it to the playoffs, their pitching would make them the toughest team to beat.

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